Your Friendly Neighborhood Heroes
By Jesse B. Gill
The two masked men crouched low to get a closer look at the graffiti scrawled across the above-ground electrical vault.
“If the letters are rounded, it’s just art,” said Blue Alpha. “If they’re sharp and angled, it’s gang-related.”
I almost spoke up to correct the skewed logic of this grown-ass man with a blue rubber mask covering his face but I decidee not to. He was, after all, a Real Life Superhero.
Blue Alpha and another costumed do-gooder, Ironclad, were patrolling downtown Riverside and I, for some reason, convinced myself to tag along. Out of costume, of course.
Blue Alpha and Ironclad belong to the Inland Empire chapter of the Extreme Justice League—a loosely-organized group of costumed crime fighters. The original Extreme Justice League hails from San Diego. The group was recently featured in an HBO documentary about the Real Life Superhero movement.
That’s right. It’s a movement.
Real Life Superheroes (alert readers will note the capitalization for Googling purposes) have been around for years, but they’re getting more exposure these days, thanks to the recent HBO film and a guy from Seattle named Phoenix Jones.
Phoenix Jones is probably the most visible guy in the Real Life Superhero movement right now. He’s made CNN a few times. He’s even got a Wikipedia page and an arch-nemesis (Google “Rex Velvet”).
He leads the Rain City Superhero Movement, which is kind of like the Extreme Justice League except it’s, you know, in Seattle and everything.
Seattle cops arrested Phoenix Jones last October when he broke up a bar fight and a person in said fight accused him of pepper-spraying her and her friends. The charges were eventually dropped, but the arrest made Phoenix’s real name public. The judge even made him take his mask off in the courtroom.
Now everybody (who actually cares) knows Phoenix Jones is actually Ben Fodor, an unsuccessful MMA fighter who found notoriety by putting on a mask and fighting bad guys.
Introducing the SoCal Super Friends
But our Inland Empire superheroes are different. They carry themselves with a straight-forward earnestness that’s so out of place it’s almost off-putting. They’re not in it for the press or the notoriety (as many Real Life Superheroes accuse Phoenix Jones of being). They claim that they just want to help people.
“If I’m able to help a single person with a problem they’re having, then this would all be worth it,” Blue Alpha said.
His fellow heroes call him “Blue,” and he’s 26. He’s from somewhere in San Bernardino County. When I asked him what his day job was, he told me he works in the “grocery retail industry.” He’s clearly the leader of this small group of self-styled heroes.
I don’t know his real name.
His costume is a jumble—he wears a green camouflage vest over a blue shirt. He wears cargo pants and a baseball cap. On his wrists he wears protective gauntlets, which are really kid-sized soccer shin guards. His belt has pockets on it. In them, he’s got a flashlight, some pepper spray and a knife, I think.
He’s a bit of a conundrum. There are moments when he took himself so seriously and others when he seemed to understand what he does with his free time is completely nuts. He’s got a wife and a kid and he drives a sensible, four-door sedan.
Ironclad is 22 and he doesn’t mind me knowing his real name—Thomas Moore. He made his mask himself and it looks a lot like Iron Man’s helmet/mask. When I first met Thomas, he mentioned Iron Man and Tony Stark a lot, so I asked him, “Is Iron Man your favorite hero?”
Dead serious, Thomas answered, “Actually, I’m more of a Spidey guy. He’s got my preferred powers.”
I had to agree. Spidey’s powers are pretty sweet, after all.
But, Thomas continued, since powers weren’t real, he figured Iron Man was the next best thing.
Ironclad’s costume changes all the time, as he’s always adding to it. The helmet, the gauntlets and the chest piece—which comes complete with a Stark-esque LED light, smack-dab in the center of his chest—are all fashioned from some kind of papier-mache-foam-rubber-who-knows-what that doesn’t look too bad but would cave the Hell in if the guy wearing them ever found himself in real fight.
But that didn’t matter much that night we patrolled in downtown Riverside. He never really wore the helmet for more than 5 minutes at time. As we walked, he just carried it. When I asked him about it, he told me, “It gets kind of humid in there. I haven’t added the fans or ventilation system yet.”
The third and final member of the group is Crimson Crow. He seemed to be the guy with the most developed sense of humor. He was also the guy with the coolest costume.
He wears black tactical cargo pants held up by a chunky utility belt filled with . . . gadgets? I guess? Anyway, he’s also got red form-fitting UnderArmor shirt with an honest-to-goodness logo—of a black crow splashed right across the chest.
And he’s got a pretty cool black cowl (that was probably some kind of ski-mask in a past life) that looks pretty awesome when pulls on his blacked-out goggles.
But the night we patrolled, he added a piece of red fabric to the cowl that covered his mouth and every time he tried to speak, he wound up sucking it into his mouth, inadvertently.
“It’s just something I’m trying out,” he said, fiddling with it. “I don’t think it’s gonna work out.”
Cruising with the Caped Crusaders
It took a while to line up the night I’d tag along for the patrol. The guys’ schedules don’t actually line up all that often. They have work or family stuff to do, just like anyone else.
But we finally make it work and we all meet up downtown in front of the courthouse. And then we started walking. Real Life Superheroes walk a lot.
They can’t fly and don’t swing on chemically-created webs high above the city floor. And even if they could, Riverside only has a handful of buildings taller than three stories, so it’s not like they would get very far.
It didn’t take long to draw the first cat-call. We walked east from the courthouse and swung right past the Robert Presley Detention Center. In front, there were two guys and a girl, looking like they were waiting around for a friend or a relative to get sprung from the holding tank.
“What is it, Halloween or something?” asks one of the guys as he watches with raised eyebrows as we pass.
“Nope,” Blue Alpha answered, looking straight ahead, not breaking stride.
Sure showed that guy.
From the jail, we walked, mostly in the neighborhoods north of downtown Riverside. While I felt completely exposed and pretty much endangered, our heroes were in their elements. They were really just a neighborhood watch program with masks and costumes, Blue Alpha told me.
Calling the police is their main superpower, he said, in so many words.
When they see something fishy, they call the cops, just like anyone else. Their costumes invite tough guys to take them on, and if that ever happens, I have my doubts about whether or not they’ll be able to defend themselves in hand-to-hand combat.
They seem to realize that if they bring a knife to a gunfight, they’ll wind up getting shot. But Blue Alpha tells me he has training in various fighting disciplines, including karate and Krav Maga. Not so much for Ironclad, who told me he plans to add several weapons systems to his armor: pepper balls, bear spray and flashing lights, he said.
Despite the concept of the Real Life Superhero, these guys don’t seem to set out looking for trouble. They just cruised, talking movies and comic books, which, admittedly, made me feel more comfortable than I did night.
Our conversation covered everything from Marvel’s Avengers to the lethalness of Ultimate Captain America to how we thought Christopher Nolan’s next Batman movie is going to end.
Over the course of our patrol, no fewer than five Riverside police cars crossed our path. Not a single one stopped.
Blue Alpha told me he and his group of heroes have had a few run-ins with police, mostly in San Bernardino. He said the masks and the get-ups haven’t caused any major problems. From what I saw, Riverside police didn’t seem to pay these guys much mind at all.
Pursuit of the Perilous Partnership
The most exciting part of our night came as we’re someplace southwest of 11th and Brockton. We were—as usual—walking, and we saw a guy and a girl, both in their mid 20s—arguing. The girl clearly was through with the relationship and the guy was, as guys will be, pissed about it.
It was an ended relationship—a scene that’s replayed over and over every single day in every single city in . . . well, you get the idea. Just because the couple was breaking up doesn’t mean it there was anything violent about it and I didn’t see anything to make me think that this breakup was anything out of the ordinary.
But then again, I’m not a superhero.
Blue Alpha and Ironclad zeroed in on the breakup right away, and the couple, who were trying to hash out their personal moment kind of clued in that there was a group of costumed people watching them.
The girl stomped off. The guy chased after her, seeming bent on changing her mind. Of course the couple was also putting some distance between themselves and, you know, us.
Ironclad put his helmet on and he and Blue Alpha started following the couple.
I waited a few seconds, letting our heroes go on a ways before I fell in behind them.
Blue Alpha and Ironclad tried to be inconspicuous, but this is where their costumes worked against them. Their intentions were pure but the couple, in the midst of a breakup, could sense that someone was following them. They looked back and they saw the masks.
And they bailed. Fast.
Before Blue Alpha or Ironclad realized what was happening, the guy and the girl split up, they didn’t run, but they were able to easily shake the costumed superhero tail they picked up at no fault of their own.
And then they were gone.
Blue Alpha and Ironclad conferred. They recapped what they thought was going on between the couple. And since the couple was gone, the conversation kind of just ended at that.
I get the feeling that many of these superheroes’ adventures end this way, with Blue Alpha or Ironclad or Crimson Crow just talking about what dangers they thought they saw.
When they found the graffiti, they just talked about it. Nobody took a photo, nobody wrote anything down. It seemed as if the concept of follow-up—a crucial tenant of real police work—hadn’t yet dawned on this particular group of crime fighters.
But maybe they’re just like everyone else and they’re learning this as they go.
Harmless, Heroes, or Headaches?
They patrol in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, from what they told me. And from what I saw, those patrols don’t consist of a lot of honest-to-goodness crime fighting.
These heroes also work in homeless outreach, where they’ll pass out sandwiches and water to anyone they think needs it. In that regard—though I haven’t seen it firsthand—they seem to do the most good.
Are they weird? Sure, but so are any one of us you think about it long enough. Are they physically intimidating? God no, but let’s be honest, neither are a good majority of us.
But who cares? How may times have any of us thought about being straight-up superheroes? These guys, for all of their faults, for whatever goofy naiveté they bring to the game, are really doing what they want to do.
Ever since they were first created, superheroes were meant to be a reflection of the cities from whence they came. Superman, the Man of Tomorrow, was the hero of Metropolis, the futuristic city we hoped we could someday create. Spider-Man is a quintessential New Yorker—a guy just trying to get by without letting the train go off the tracks, both figuratively and literally.
So what does that make our heroes? Blue Alpha, Ironclad and Crimson Crow?
They may be nerdy and unapologetically so, but at least their root motives are pure. And when you really think about it, that’s so much better than 99 percent of us on our very best of days.
They’re throwing caution to the wind and going for it.
And when you really think about it, when was the last time you did that?